Plant Base

I t came as a surprise to Elisha Hazel and Qulem Wright to learn that they were the proprietors of New Haven’s only vegan restaurant. 

Actually, it should come as a surprise to all of us. More than most, New Haveners care about others’ suffering, worry about public health and fret over climate change. Vegan food and philosophy serve those impulses in spades, and while plant-based options are plentiful at vegetarian havens like Claire’s and Thali Too, as well as at numerous meatier places around town, it’s only fitting that we should have a 100% vegan joint.

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The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven

Now we do. Positioned on the north side of George Street, just west of Orange, it’s called Ninth Square Market Too Caribbean Style. When they opened it in January, Hazel and Wright, both vegans themselves, assumed they’d have to serve at least some animal-based foods to survive as a Caribbean restaurant. To their delight, most customers ordered the plant-based offerings anyway, giving them the confidence to completely veganize the menu starting July 1.

The name—especially the “Ninth Square Market Too” part—is a bit confusing, but the “Caribbean Style,” at least, is quite clear. Clarifying it further are plantain-yellow walls, a large Jamaican flag, a reggae/roots playlist and, most of all, a Caribbean-strong menu prepared in small batches by the Jamaican-born Wright. Hazel, a trained nutritionist, handles the front of house, greeting customers with island-level zen and dishing out food cafeteria-style.

There are a la carte items, including house-made beverages like Sorrel ($2.99)—a traditional Jamaican holiday drink that’s wine-red and sweet with a gingery zip—and soups, salads and “patties,” which, in Jamaican lingo, refers to baked pockets of dough filled with vegetables and meat, in this case not from animals. The Vegan Chicken Patty ($3.49) I tried, flaky on the outside with a warm, soft filling, tasted a lot like chicken pot pie, which is to say it was both delicious and comforting.

Other flavors, all subject to availability—in fact, I’m told they’re sold out of patties until an expected resupply this Saturday—include Vegetable, Lentil, Vegan Beef and Vegan Ackee. The latter, which rhymes with “hockey,” is a plant-based take on Jamaica’s national dish. Usually made with “salt fish” (a.k.a. cod), Wright describes its texture as “kind of like scrambled eggs,” with “a distinctive buttery taste.” He doesn’t make the ackee in the patties—a baker based in Brooklyn does—but he does make straight-up ackee to order.

Which brings us to the restaurant’s biggest and most splendored draw: the hot bar, a smorgasbord of house-prepared “proteins” and “sides” that you can mix and match to your heart’s content. How far you can take it depends on whether you go with a Small (one protein, two sides; $8.99), Medium (two proteins, three sides; $10.99) or Large (three proteins, four sides; $12.99).

Naturally, I chose the Large, which is when the real choosing began. Looking over the metal trays filled with goodies, which may differ from day to day, for proteins I picked the Jerk Tofu, whose tasty slabs of soy had picture-perfect grill marks slathered in a sauce that really kicked; the Fish Cake, with seaweed skin, slightly chewy flesh and thin spiced gravy; and the BBQ Drumsticks, whose addictive hunks of tender flesh were spooled around a wood-stick “bone,” wrapped in chewy “skin” and glazed with a sweet sauce of such a rich, vivid red that it could stop traffic.

For sides I chose the Mixed Vegetables, featuring broccoli, cauliflower and carrot in a mild yellow curry; the unctuous and pleasingly bitter Kale, shredded and sautéed with mushrooms and carrots; the savory Green Beans, cooked just enough to be a little wrinkled; and the crumb-crusted Mac ’N’ Cheeze, a crowd-pleaser whose soft noodles were steeped in gooey, dairy-free goodness.

The co-owners—who are also life partners; during a visit, you might see their two children giggling together in the corner—have their own favorites. Hazel, a New Haven native who’s been vegan for about five years, says hers are the Curried Chickpeas, the Ital Dal Stew and the Mixed Vegetables, among others. Wright, a vegan for more than two decades who’s been cooking even longer (and who’s lived in New Haven even longer than that), says he also loves the chickpeas and veggies, plus the Jerk Tofu and the Mac ’N’ Cheeze. My favorite? Those BBQ Drumsticks, which I’m told are now sold out but, like the patties, should be available again on Saturday.

The menu spans Jamaican, Indian and Southern American influences, while Wright says the decor nods to Ethiopia’s national colors: yellow, green and red. Many Jamaicans, particularly adherents to Rastafarianism, consider Ethiopia their Zion—the place from which their ancestors were taken and to which they might one day return—and Wright counts Rasta as a heavy influence on his thinking.

Still, for the benefit of New Haven’s vegans, vegetarians, Caribbeans and open-minded eaters otherwise—and for the prosperity of Hazel and Wright, who are providing the city with food that’s good in more ways than one—here’s hoping Ninth Square Market Too Caribbean Style sticks around awhile.

Ninth Square Market Too Caribbean Style
89 George St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 11am-8pm, Sat noon-8pm
(203) 787-9703
www.facebook.com/ninthsquaremarketcaribbean

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories, helped very much by a small team of dedicated contributors.

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